Tocqueville and Gobineau

It is fitting to end this series with a study of the exchanges between GobineauTocqueville and his younger friend and assistant, Arthur de Gobineau. For if Tocqueville was the explorer of the new age of democracy, Gobineau was the herald of a return to an age of aristocracy, if in an untraditional and modernized form.

Though little remembered now, Gobineau was a prolific and assiduous writer, known chiefly for his defense of racism, the Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (1853-55) (“Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races”). Eleven years younger than Tocqueville and, like him, the Essaiscion of a noble family (if a lesser one), Gobineau was probably introduced to Tocqueville by royalist friends of both. Whether or not they had met previously, the two men began a correspondence in 1843. The exchange resulted from an invitation the Académie des sciences morales et politiques had extended to Tocqueville in that year, to prepare a study on modern moral doctrines in order to establish what, if anything, was novel in them. Tocqueville sought to enlist the young Gobineau’s assistance in the project. The ensuing correspondence took, for Tocqueville, a surprising turn, as he found his deepest beliefs about the relationship of Christianity to modern society sharply challenged. Tocqueville abandoned the study in 1848, probably owing to the revolution of that year.

A second major round of correspondence took place beginning about a decade later, around the time of the appearance of Gobineau’s book on racial inequality. This new, illiberal orientation in Gobineau’s thought deeply disturbed Tocqueville, who told Gobineau frankly that he objected to its “fatalism” and its “materialism.” To other correspondents, Tocqueville complained that Gobineau’s “stud farm philosophy” expounded “dangerous thoughts . . . in a journalistic style.” See Françoise Mélonio, Tocqueville and the French 129 (Beth Raps trans. 1998). For his part, Gobineau exulted that the book had “struck the nerve of liberal ideas at its core.” Id.

Despite their basic differences, Tocqueville befriended Gobineau, launching him on a diplomatic career when Tocqueville became France’s Foreign Minister in 1849. Gobineau did not repay Tocqueville’s kindness: in his 1874 novel Les Pléiades, his used the character of Genevilliers to mock and satirize his benefactor. Mélonio at 128-30.

The interest and importance of the Tocqueville-Gobineau correspondence has been rightly emphasized by several scholars. See especially Aristide Tessitore, “Tocqueville and Gobineau on the Nature of Modern Politics,” 67 Review of Politics 631 (2005); see also Christian Bégin, “Tocqueville et la fracture religieuse,” 32 The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville 167 (2011); Larry Siedentop, Tocqueville 96-106; 126-30 (1994); William A. Galston, “Tocqueville on Liberalism and Religion,” 54 Social Research 499 (1987). The historian John Lukacs has edited and translated most – though unfortunately not all – of the correspondence, and I shall use this translation. Alexis de Tocqueville, “The European Revolution” & Correspondence with Gobineau (John Lukacs ed. & trans. 1968).

The ultimate issues

The confrontation between Tocqueville and Gobineau was played out on at least two levels.

First, as of 1843, Gobineau “might best be described as a radical partisan of the Enlightenment project.” Tessitore at 632. Throughout his career, however, Tocqueville had argued that modern Western society was indebted to both the Enlightenment and Christianity, that the central doctrines of both movements were compatible, and that the tension between them was fruitful and beneficent, each correcting the flaws and excesses of the other. See id. at 639; 652; Galston at 502-04. The core principles of the Enlightenment, such as “the natural equality of men,” were also part of the patrimony of Christianity. See Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the Revolution 21 (Bevan trans. 2008).

For Gobineau, the Enlightenment marks a revolutionary transformation in the West, ushering in a post-Christian era in which morality has come to rest on a wholly naturalistic foundation. See Tessitore at 641. For Tocqueville, by contrast, the coming of Christianity is the only true revolution that the West has yet seen, or may ever see. (The same thesis has been defended at length, but without reference to Tocqueville, in David Bentley Hart’s brilliant Atheist Delusions, cited earlier in this series.). There is, indeed, a radical discontinuity in the dominant ethos of the West; but this is the rupture between classical antiquity and the rise of Christianity, not between the Christian ages and the aftermath of the Enlightenment. True, the morality of the nineteenth century differs significantly from that of the pre-Enlightenment period, notably with regard to the importance of political action and the recognition of life’s material needs. But these changes, Tocqueville insists, merely reflect the development of Christian morality over long stretches of time and its adaptation to new circumstances. They do not constitute evidence of the dominance of a radically de-christianized ethos. See Tessitore at 636; 644-45; 648; Galston at 505-08.

Second, Gobineau’s view of modern morality in the early 1840s laid the foundation for his later teaching about human inequality.

For Gobineau, a new aristocracy will emerge from an already waning democratic era. This new aristocracy will be based not, as in the past, on any historical or supernatural sanction, but on modern science, which unveils the natural, inheritable superiority of some humans over others. The freedom of thought and experimentation fostered by democracy thus leads to the discovery of a new, racialized science that will destroy democracy’s very basis. Although, for Gobineau, this scientifically validated aristocracy will be one of race, the principle he affirms is a broader one, and race is only one of its possible specifications.

Later, post-Darwinian efforts to explain, justify or entrench social inequalities on the basis of the “science” of eugenics entertained ambitions not unlike Gobineau’s project of reviving an aristocratic society of “natural” castes. The eugenics movement had a large, enthusiastic and often highly educated following in pre-World War II America – a fact often forgotten now. See Victoria F. Nourse, In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near Triumph of American Eugenics (2008). Support for eugenics was commonly found on the progressive Left as well as on the reactionary Right, see Diane Paul, “Eugenics and the Left,” 45 Journal of the History of Ideas 567 (1984); indeed, Left-leaning intellectuals in the inter-war period, such as the British novelist Aldous Huxley, often advocated “race betterment” through eugenics, see Joanne Woiak, “Designing a Brave New World: Eugenics, Politics, and Fiction,” 29 Public Historian 105 (2007). Furthermore, the idea that social inequality might rest on genetically inherited abilities (especially intelligence) persists well into the present: Charles Murray, whose book Coming Apart was considered earlier in this series, has argued that genetically determined differences in intelligence are perpetuated through our marriage patterns and thus account, in large part, for the rise and entrenchment of inequality in contemporary America. And one might well wonder whether other American social practices and governmental policies do not amount to informal, unacknowledged methods of eugenics, most especially when characterized as “compassion” for the poor.

Tocqueville finds Gobineau’s denial of the essential unity and equality of mankind terrifying and repulsive. He recoils from this attempt to “restore” aristocracy in the midst of a democratic age. Tocqueville’s objections to Gobineau’s program are rooted, primarily, in Christianity. In this fashion, Tocqueville comes closest to giving us his answer to the question that has occupied our last several postings: can democracy survive and flourish in America, in conditions of deepening social and economic inequality, if our society becomes radically de-christianized? The fact that Tocqueville takes recourse to the Christian vision of human equality to rebut Gobineau’s claims strongly suggests that he would agree that, without Christianity, American democracy would be under threat. For Tocqueville (as, apparently, for Habermas), a thriving democracy seems to stand in need of “prepolitical,” religious support.

To keep a steady focus on that question, I shall consider here only Tocqueville’s exchanges with Gobineau from 1843. The 1853 correspondence on the Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, while certainly interesting, is less directly relevant to that issue.

Tocqueville’s initial position

In his letter to Gobineau of September 8, 1843, Tocqueville poses the question he wishes the two of them to pursue together: “What is there really new in the works or in the discoveries of the modern moral philosophers?” His answer: “to me it is Christianity that seems to have accomplished the revolution – you may prefer the word change – in all the ideas that concern duties and rights; ideas which, after all, are the basic matter of all moral knowledge.”

This was not a new claim for Tocqueville. As we have seen earlier in this series, Tocqueville had argued in Democracy in America that even the greatest minds of pagan antiquity “were unable to reach this most general and yet most simple of generalizations, that men were alike and that all of them had equal rights to freedom at birth.” Thus, he wrote, “Jesus Christ had to come into the world to reveal that all members of the human race were similar and equal by nature.” Democracy at 505-06. See also Peter Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine (1996) (finding the only unequivocal statement attacking ancient slavery in a homily of the late 4th c. AD Christian, Gregory of Nyssa); see also Robert Schlaifer, “Greek Theories of Slavery from Homer to Aristotle,” 47 Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 165, 199-201 (1936) (surveying ancient criticism of slavery). With the benefit of modern scholarship, we can restate Tocqueville’s thesis more accurately: Jesus’ message was rooted in and continuous with the great tradition of Jewish thought, which in the Hebrew Bible had proclaimed a new political order founded on the idea of equality. See Joshua A. Berman, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (2008). Assuming that indispensable qualification, Christianity can indeed be described as a revolution in thought.

Tocqueville specifies three ways in which Christianity brought about a moral revolution. First, it changed the relative position of the virtues. The “milder” virtues, including love of neighbor, love, pity, leniency and forgiveness, were promoted to the top; “rude and half-savage” virtues were demoted. Second, Christianity broadened the “realm of duties.” What had once been limited “to certain citizenries” was now held owing “to all men.” Slaves were put on the same moral footing as masters. “Thus Christianity put in grand evidence the equality, the unity, the fraternity of all men.” Third, Christianity located the sanction for the moral order “beyond this world,” in the afterlife. “[I]t thus gave a finer, purer, less material, less interested, and higher character to morality.”

From this starting point, Tocqueville maintains that “our modern morality” “for the most part” has “merely developed and expanded the consequences of Christian morality without affecting [its] essential principles.” It is true that modern society “is much more alienated from the theology than . . . from the philosophy of Christianity.” This has led to an important modification of Christian morality: modern morality “has become more concerned with the legitimacy of material needs and pleasures. . . .[T]he flesh must be rehabilitated.” Furthermore, Christianity, in attempting to form “a human community beyond national societies,” had neglected “the public virtues.” This neglect, however, constituted “the only weak facet of that admirable moral system,” just as attention to the political life was “the only strong facet” of the ancient pagan moral systems. By repairing this neglect, “the modern world re-established a part of antique morality and inserted it within the moral principles of Christianity.” The overall Christian structure of Western morality remained intact.

Tocqueville then identified “two principles” that Christianity had introduced, but that had undergone “tremendous development” and had assumed a “new form” in the modern world. These were “the equal rights of every man to the goods of this world” and “the duty of those who have more to help those who have less.” These principles were corollaries of “the principle of equality,” which Christianity “had established in the spiritual rather than in the tangible material sphere.” As the norm of equality found material as well as spiritual definition, so also the nature of virtues changed from being wholly private, like charity, to being public as well, as in governmental relief for hardship. “Thus a new kind of social political and political morality is being established,” which is a kind of fusion of the “political ideas” of classical antiquity with “the moral principles of Christianity.”

Gobineau’s reply

Gobineau’s reply letter of September 8, 1843 takes issue with Tocqueville’s insistence that Christianity represents a decisive and lasting breach in Western morality. Modern morality, Gobineau affirms, “undoubtedly springs from the bosom of Christianity, but only in the way in which Christian morality refers back to Socrates.” Addressed originally to the humble masses of the Roman Empire, Christian morality was founded on “personal interest, instinct, sentiment rather than a contemplated and rational conviction of what ought to be.”

Consider the Christian doctrine that “suffering is holy.” However moving this teaching might be, its practical consequences were “lethal, since it completely justified the existence of suffering.” Christian attempts to relieve suffering by “individual charity” could, at most, “attenuate” it; but the duty of charity was “not very exacting.” More basically, by “[m]aking everything rest on faith,” Christianity dismissed “all the other spiritual and mental powers . . . as relatively insignificant.” Where salvation became all-important, there were “few opportunities to be helpful to one’s fellow men.” Thus, Christian morality incorporated “a vast element of mediocrity.”

In modern times, faith has been displaced as the source of moral virtue. It is admitted that “[a] Moslem, a pagan may have a moral character as high as the most religious Christian hermit.” The toleration of religious differences must follow once it is recognized that beliefs about a future life are “wholly inconsequential to one’s actions or duties in this life.” No one religion can claim for itself the common “patrimony.”

Further, since people have become less other-worldly, and especially since the Enlightenment, appreciation for the moral importance of “human welfare” has spread. “[U]nder the influence of Voltairean ideas, . . . men began to ask whether it was not possible to give something more than poorhouses to the lower classes. For the first time they studied the exact nature of charity.” Purely individual, occasional almsgiving gave way to systemic, effective public health and welfare programs. Suffering was no longer considered “holy;” rather, “[l]ike the plague, like every scourge, it must be extirpated.” Likewise, the modern world views labor differently: it is no longer a curse but a right to which all have a claim, and manual labor is no less honorable than spiritual. So too with education: the “necessity to enlighten the masses” is uncontested, and their instruction must include “all the fruits of the human intellect,” not merely “the basic principles of religion.” And rehabilitative notions of criminal justice have supplanted retributivist ones: people accept Voltaire’s judgment that “a man hanged is good for nothing.”

The foundation of this new moral order, says Gobineau, is self-interest – not of a narrow and individualistic kind, but one whose “primary source is enlightened psychology” and which seeks the good of “humanity” as a whole. Furthermore, the new moral order, unlike Christianity, is “indulgent” toward “the passions.” In a statement that presages Mill, Gobineau says that “any kind of reasonable satisfaction that does, in fact, involve no inconvenience to others is in no way opposed to the morality adopted in our age.” Still, “the new morality is nonetheless severe to everything that would injure someone’s peaceful and normal relations with the other members of the social body.”

Summarizing his position, Gobineau concludes that while an “ennobled” self-interest is “at the bottom of everything,” the weak point of the new order is the question of “its sources.” Once, religion had brought morality “under the aegis of divinity.” But “[n]ow that it has been brought down to earth . . . it has not yet been possible to discover its sources.” These cannot be located in Christianity, to which morality “no longer” belongs; nor with “pure Voltaireanism;” nor with “a sort of philanthropy, sentimental rather than reasonable, the kind which easily goes astray.”

Tocqueville’s rejoinder

Tocqueville answered Gobineau in a letter of October 2, 1843. He strongly reaffirms his original judgment about the revolutionary but lasting character of Christianity. “I must tell you that my opinions about Christianity are absolutely opposite to yours. . . . It is vastly different from what had preceded it, and we are much less removed from it than you say.” Its teachings are “absolutely new,” “something entirely different from that body of philosophical and moral ideas which had previously governed humanity.”

Tocqueville also reaffirms his conviction that the apparent differences between Christian and modern moral attitudes do not signify a fundamental reorientation in the moral order, but merely the adaptation of Christianity to changed conditions. Thus, he sees the movement from private charity to public or institutionalized philanthropy as “less a new principle than a more modern, civil, bureaucratic, and democratic manifestation of Christian doctrine.”

Furthermore, Tocqueville chastises Gobineau for neglecting two rules that must be applied in studying Christianity. One is to remember that the working-out of its ideas necessarily took centuries. Christianity has evolved “through centuries marked by much rudeness, ignorance, social inequality, and political oppression,” during which it was often used as “a weapon in the hands of kings and of priests.” Christianity must be viewed in separation from “the historic vehicles” in which it had no choice but to travel.

More interestingly, Tocqueville stresses to Gobineau the need to recall that Christianity “is not a philosophy but a religion.” Tocqueville had previously argued that philosophical reasoning was accessible to very few, and could not form the basis of life for the mass of people. See Democracy at 510-11. Philosophy, therefore, cannot serve to justify the practice of virtue for most of us. But religion could, and does, remedy this motivational deficit. To be deprived of religious authority is, for most men, a disaster that leaves only destitution in the soul. In political affairs, a similar collapse of authority can lead to a desire for despotism. Thus, the destructive work of the Enlightenment in philosophy, interacting with that of the French Revolution in politics, caused the French people to turn to Napoléon. “When authority in religious matters no longer exists any more than in political matters, men soon take fright at the sight of boundless independence. This constant upheaval in everything brings disquiet and exhaustion. As everything in the domain of their intelligence is shifting, they crave at least for a firm and stable state in their material world. Being unable to recover their ancient beliefs, they find a ruler.” Democracy at 512. If Gobineau can sound like Mill in this correspondence, Tocqueville seems here to foreshadow Dostoievski’s Grand Inquisitor.

We should read Tocqueville’s letter to Gobineau about the relationship of religion to philosophy in light of these passages in Democracy. He tells Gobineau that although Christianity’s emphasis on the centrality of certain doctrines may cause some harms (such as religious intolerance), this is “part and parcel” of some religions, and that on balance religious systems of morality do far less harm than systems that “have emancipated themselves from religion altogether.” Thus, “[t]he longer I live the less I think that the peoples of the world can ever separate themselves from a positive religion.”

Let us take note of one last point. Tocqueville writes again to Gobineau on October 22, 1843. In this letter, he charmingly tells Gobineau that he is “an amiable, intelligent, and unorthodox adversary with whom I do not want to battle” (my emphasis). In other words, their differences are irreconcilable and it would be useless to discuss them further. He also takes issue with Gobineau’s point that “the fear of God does not stop people from murder” – which is to say, Christianity provides no sanction for the legal (or at least criminal) order. Tocqueville doubts this but considers the point unimportant. Far weightier, he says, is the fact that the legal system regulates “matters of daily life” and so forms “the general temper of habits and ideas.” For the purpose of shaping and sustaining society’s moeurs, Tocqueville contends, laws, “and especially religious laws,” are so necessary that “there never has been a people of any importance that could do without them.” Might a wholly secularized legal system serve the same stabilizing and moralizing function? Tocqueville’s answer is No. “I know that there are many who now think that one day they may be able to do without this regimen, and every morning they keep looking eagerly for this new day. I think they are looking in vain. I should be even more inclined to believe in the coming of some new religion than in the continuation of the prosperity and greatness of modern societies without religion” (my emphasis).

Tocqueville’s position, then, is clear and considered. Gobineau is wrong both to assume that the prevailing moral order rests wholly on secular, post-Enlightenment foundations, and to think that its substantive norms and values are radically different from those of traditional Christianity. The Enlightenment did not make a breach in the Christian tradition; rather, it carried the timeless and essential Christian message forward. Changes in the content of our dominant moral ethos have no doubt taken place, chiefly in the direction of a heightened concern for the body and a deeper appreciation for our duties as citizens. But these are modifications or adaptations of Christian morality, not altering its substance. Nor can Christianity be reformulated along strictly philosophical lines without losing the source of its authority, which is supernatural: a “religion within the limits of reason alone” may be sufficient for an élite few, but cannot be the basis for the morality of the mass of people. And were modern, democratic society to be utterly de-christianized, that could only signal “the coming of some new religion.”

As for Gobineau, it would be fascinating to track his intellectual development from being a defender of the secular Enlightenment to a high theorist of racial inequality. Does this simply reflect mere opportunism on the part of this gifted but unstable man? Or is there an inner logic and coherence linking the two positions? If there is an inner logic, does it lie in the belief that science, especially the science of human beings, must guide social policy and political choice? Does science sometimes lend itself to a belief in the unity of the human race and the equality of its members, and sometimes to the opposite conclusions?

Those questions lie outside the scope of this essay. I shall conclude instead with a brief discussion of the question whether Tocqueville, in his correspondence with Gobineau, showed himself a coward.

Was Tocqueville a coward?

Some careful students of the Tocqueville-Gobineau correspondence of 1843 have raised the question whether Tocqueville lacked the intellectual courage to “follow his analysis of modernity to the limit.” See Bégin at 185 (citing Regina Pozzi and Marcel Gauchet). On this interpretation, Gobineau was proposing to Tocqueville a conception of modern morality that would have been truer to Tocqueville’s own views. Tocqueville ought to have seen that the passing of the aristocratic age and the rise of the democratic one surely meant the displacement of Christian morality by one that is thoroughly secular, post-metaphysical, tolerant, public-spirited, utilitarian and hedonistic. If that new moral order looks to man and not God for its source, it is not therefore narrowly self-interested; rather, its central concern is to promote the welfare of humanity as a whole, not individuals. Or perhaps (as Bégin suggests, id. at 197), Tocqueville should have seized the opportunity of his correspondence with Gobineau to explore the emergence of a post-Christian morality along Kantian lines — a morality that depended on the transformation of Christianity into a secular form, but without loss to its power to motivate and enthrall. (This, in other words, would be a Christianity that had undergone what Habermas calls “translation.”) This new morality would be suited to a world of free and rational individuals who legislated for themselves, both privately and collectively.

But the suggestion that Tocqueville was guilty of intellectual cowardice is rightly turned against those who raise it: Why is it not they who are the intellectual cowards, by refusing to acknowledge both the revolutionary doctrine and the staying power of Christianity? Why should one not survey the course of the centuries, as Tocqueville did, and see in them the guiding hand of God, leading the human race to a deeper and truer understanding of the demands of justice and equality and of our capability for satisfying them? Why not take the view that the secularizing trends that are so prominent in our world represent nothing other than an attempted counter-revolution against the Christian message, that would lead, if successful, to the restoration of inequality? If a secular heir of the Enlightenment like Habermas is prepared to admit that the constitutional State needs religion, can we really consider Tocqueville a “coward” because, throughout the course of his voluminous writings, he reached the same conclusion?

America is not a Christian nation in many dimensions that matter; nor was it one in Tocqueville’s time. See Hugh Heclo’s lucid analysis in “Is America a Christian Nation?,” 122 Political Science Quarterly 59 (2007). Neither is it, in important respects, a democratic one. But a Christian worldview has nurtured American democracy, such as it is, for centuries. And it is not cowardly, but utterly realistic, to think that if America’s Christianity wanes, so too will its democratic ethos. Democracy is more confident and more secure when it rests on the Christian vision of the worth and destiny of each of us:

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and 
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, 

Is immortal diamond.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection (1888).

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